The Almere Conundrum
For reasons best known to themselves, the progressive Dutch are embracing American suburbia
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
As an American, it's easy to feel inadequate compared to the Dutch. We've got a president who's barely proficient in our single language, while it seems that the average cashier in Holland can give change in three tongues. Squeezing into our gas-guzzling SUVs, we're the most overweight country in the world; the Dutch cut a slim profile, whizzing by on their bikes. When it comes to enlightened design and urban planning, the Netherlands make an embarrassment of our shortsightedness. That's why it's so strange to consider the biggest craze to hit Holland since the tulip: The Dutch have discovered suburbia, American-style.
Earlier this year, the Netherlands Architecture Institute, a government-funded institution with a staff of 100—yet another reason to feel inadequate—invited American journalists on a tour of architecture in Holland. There were of course many good things to see, both old and new. Then there was Almere. Begun in the 1970s, this government-planned city sits on reclaimed land about 30 miles east of Amsterdam. Originally a bedroom community for the older burg, Almere's low-density aggregate of subdivisions features single-family homes, wide roads, and big, empty spaces. With 150,000 residents, it's destined for a population of 350,000 by 2030.
Single-family homes? Big roads and subdivisions? The land-starved Dutch, who need dykes to protect half their country from disappearing under water, have always been masters at planning. Was our host country, known for an even-keeled outlook, trying to show us not just the good but also the bad and the ugly? Apparently not. As architect Maurice Nio wrote in a 1999 issue of the Dutch design journal Archis, "The loveliest part of the Netherlands is the province of Flevoland. The loveliest place in Flevoland is Almere."
What Nio finds so lovely is the "nebulousness" of Almere, that it's "neither large nor small and is neither urban nor antiurban." Or, as NAI director Aaron Betsky says, "It's a city that is small-scale and complex enough to be livable, formal enough to make sense, and grand enough to give you a feeling of place." Almere is coming into its own, we're told. It's even constructing a hotel development, an Orlando-worthy replica of a medieval Belgian castle.
Designed to comprise multiple cores, Almere now boasts three; two more are in the pipeline. A new city center planned by the megalomaniacal Rem Koolhaas is touted for providing more offices, more luxury high-rises, and more opportunities for shopping and entertainment. All of this will be raised above a huge parking lot.
Vast greenways separate the cores, which are linked by winding roads. Local public transit consists of bus lanes. (Traffic jams plague the city, and having only one highway to Amsterdam seems a good recipe for commuter road rage.) Sterile office towers line the main routes, much like Interstates to U.S. airports. All of which combines—despite the Koolhaas downtown-as-parking-garage scheme—to give Almere the look of some of the more sprawling U.S. cities.
In fact, with 2,800 inhabitants per square mile of land, Almere is even more sparsely populated than Irvine, California, with its density of 3,100. Future development will no doubt raise numbers in Almere's center, but the trend remains clear. According to Gerard Slokkers of TKA Architecture & Urban Design, the firm that devised the initial urban plan, "Almere was built to accommodate a continuing growth in population and, more important, a continuing need of space per person." Building lots in the city have increased approximately 40 percent in size since the '70s. Like so many Americans, the Dutch want bigger houses and bigger gardens. Meanwhile, subsidized housing, once 50 percent of residential construction, has dwindled to almost nil. These market-oriented phenom- ena accelerated in the mid-'90s, when the government ceded much of its planning role to developers.
In fairness, if these factors contribute to the creation of another Irvine, Almere is Irvine with a prettier skin. A residential development by UN Studio and proposed commercial buildings by the likes of Christian de Portzamparc certainly outdo the aluminum-sided split-levels and glass-box towers of the American burbs. Take away the slick forms, though, and something unsettling may be going on. Unfortunately for Almere, our visit's timing gave rise to far greater implications. We arrived just days after the right-wing party of Pim Fortuyn, the slain xenophobic politician, made global headlines by finishing second in national elections. When asked what type of resident Almere attracted, one of our guides somewhat reluctantly replied, "People politically to the right."
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